Front-page Williams’ photos showed “stark truth of savage sickness”: Toronto Star public editor

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English wrote a column about why the paper ran a front-page photo of Russell Williams in stolen underwear.

English admits she found the photos “shocking,” “disturbing” and “deplorable,” and that the decision to publish them on the front page divided the Star newsroom.

Emotionally, she’s not convinced she needed to see the photos. But, she writes, “when I push past my own emotional gut revulsion, I think that they chose the harder way for the right reasons.”

“Even as we debated publishing the photos on Page 1, I saw clearly that nothing conveyed the stark truth of the savage sickness of the serial killer who has dominated Canadian news this week so powerfully as the juxtaposition of the two images published on Tuesday’s front page — a photo of Williams attired in what appears to be a young girl’s pink bathing suit, directly beside a portrait of him clad in full military uniform, standing in salute.”

She writes that, amongst the “heartbreaking and revolting revelations” from the courtroom, “a debate about offensive images feels somewhat banal to me now.”

Earlier this week Star publisher John Cruickshank told Metro Morning that “I think it’s that pair of photos — not the single photo — that tell an extraordinary disturbing story. I think there probably is harm, but there is a greater good that arises as we get past that harm. This is a day you hate as a publisher. I would much rather have a victorious Leafs cover celebrating their victory,” which would certainly sell more papers and would make advertisers happy, he says. “We feel like we have to face up to the truth of our day, this is not the truth of every morning, but certainly is an extraordinary story about authority in Canada, It’s a story we shouldn’t turn our heads from, it’s the reason we made the decision we did.”

English spoke to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which trains North American journalists, and asked, “Should news organizations seek to shield audiences from the gruesome truths revealed in open court?” How much is too much?

English says that Poynter’s head of visual journalism Kenny Irby, who also leads the organization’s photo ethics sessions, “lauded the Star for its ‘bravery’ in publishing the photos.”

“It was a bold decision on behalf of the newspaper’s leadership. This shows courage that news organizations have cowered from for a long time,” he told English. “I see this as a painful but powerful step of holding the powerful accountable.”

Read more about how journalists are covering the Col. Williams trial.